Undrafted free agency offers fresh chance for HBCU players to pursue NFL dreams

By Ken Makin

Shortly after the NFL draft ended Saturday, the Twitter account for Florida A&M University’s football program offered a glimpse into the moment one of the biggest draft prospects in the historically Black college community got the call.

The Dallas Cowboys had just signed FAMU linebacker Isaiah Land as an undrafted free agent. Land, who wore a pair of dark sunglasses, didn’t quite pass the vibe check as family and friends surrounded him with cheers and hugs. He looked relieved but nearly shaken, and I wondered what might have been beyond those shades — perhaps steely determination or tears of joy.

I ultimately imagined a gleam in his eye — the gleam of opportunity.  Only one HBCU player, Isaiah Bolden of Jackson State University, was taken during this year’s NFL draft, and responses to the dearth of Black college players drafted ranged from appreciating the autonomy those players experienced to being “ashamed,” as former Jackson State coach Deion Sanders said, of the NFL teams that didn’t draft players from Black schools.

There is a temptation to focus the discussion on Sanders’ comments, and certainly that would perpetuate the double consciousness of one who displays concern for Black colleges while using those same institutions to curry favor and careerism at predominantly white institutions. Those of us at HBCUs, though, should focus our gaze on the opportunities before us.

We should first ask ourselves, while we adequately prepare young brothas for the next level, are we protecting them from the window dressing that comes with the marketing of our schools. It is frustrating to see such events as the HBCU Combine and Legacy Bowl, with the backing of the NFL, not yield more draftees. It presents the illusion of inclusion, and when those same teams pick up handfuls of Black college players just hours – in some cases, minutes – after the draft, it is understandable why HBCU enthusiasts may believe the process lacks dignity.

Albany State University head football coach Quinn Gray, who was himself an undrafted free agent signed by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2002, shared his lament on Twitter shortly after the draft.

“The crazy thing about us as HBCU players, we’ve always worked for what we wanted and have always had to take the road less traveled! But at some point the talent of the young men at HBCUs need to be recognized and given the same opportunities as upper level players from major conferences,” Gray tweeted. “You can’t tell me the best defensive player in FCS and HBCU football isn’t better than some of these draft picks this late in the draft. Goes to show that a man has no influence on what the NFL and the scouts do. I don’t care who he is. Keep grinding HBCUs it’ll come!”

That grind has yielded diamonds. Bethune-Cookman University defensive tackle Larry Little, who went undrafted in 1967, signed with the San Diego Chargers and entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a Miami Dolphin in 1993. Undrafted Grambling State University player Willie Brown was inducted into the Hall in 1984 after a distinguished career with the Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos. While undrafted FAMU alum Nate Newton isn’t in the Hall, he was part of the Dallas Cowboys’ wall on the offensive line that helped the team win three Super Bowls in the 1990s.

Sometimes the grind manifests itself in mutual respect. Former Carolina Panthers great Steve Smith Sr. saw a bit of himself in FAMU wide receiver Xavier Smith, who was picked up as an undrafted free agent by the Los Angeles Rams. Smith gushed over the young player’s “body control” and “explosiveness.”

“It pulled on my heartstrings because when you come from a small school, you’re already at a place where people believe that you’re at a disadvantage,” Steve Smith said during an NFL Network segment. “Just give this man his opportunity.”

Opportunity. I can’t help but wonder if Land might have been drafted if he was allowed to compete during the Rattlers’ season opener at Chapel Hill against North Carolina in 2022. Land was one of 25 players who were deemed ineligible for the contest, and it was later made clear the compliance issues were not the fault of the players. As stunned as Rattler Nation was by the ineligibility issues, what was even more shocking was the score after three quarters: UNC 35, FAMU 24. The Rattlers held serve with the eventual ACC Coastal Division champion without a significant portion of their team.

Certainly, the defending FCS defensive player of the year would have made his presence felt with pro scouts in the stadium. Sadly, we’ll never know, and that was a missed opportunity for us all.

I just want people to see the value in historically Black colleges and universities – academically, athletically, altogether. That value is evident to those of us at Black colleges, and we have to become more fervent in challenging casual opinions of our institutions. There are concerns the lack of draftees will cause an exodus from HBCUs via the transfer portal, and my only response to that notion is every program in college football is dealing with that flux. I am reminded Isaiah Land is no fallen Rattler, and even if he was, there’s a gospel in the Rattler Charge that speaks to when fate is a “glare in the eye” and when hope is “a lost friend.”

I am confident that whenever and wherever HBCU players get an opportunity, they will continue to strike – during pro days, on the practice squad and in the playoffs, when it matters most.